Could you wipe yourself from the web?

A New Zealand researcher has, together with researchers from Germany, developed software that could, within seconds, allow Google and service providers alike to remove someone's personal information on the internet.

The technology could have a clear benefit for European citizens, who, thanks to a landmark court ruling, are now free to ask Google to take down reputation-damaging material about them on the search engine's European indexes.

Unfortunately for Kiwis who would rather they didn't exist online, the same right doesn't apply here.

Advertisement

Google has evaluated more than one million links sent by Europeans since the European Court of Justice last year forced the internet giant to comply with EU privacy laws that held up the "right to be forgotten".

While this created a huge back-log for Google's take-down team, who had to sort through them and validate them on a case-by-case basis, Dr Muhammad Rizwan Asghar, a Lecturer at The University of Auckland, and his collaborators Milivoj Simeonovski and others, from Saarland University and MPI-SWS in Germany, have offered a speedy solution.

Their prototype software, Oblivion, can automatically locate and tag their personal information on the web using text and image recognition, before checking the web pages the user wants to remove and tagging the relevant references.

Once the tagged pages are sent to Google, the company can automatically confirm the details match with those in the article and provide an "ownership token" that is submitted to the takedown team.

Dr Asghar said a test had shown Oblivion could churn through 278 take-down requests per second - and this work-rate could be much higher if performed on a computer more powerful than a laptop.

"So we are semi-automating the process - we can do it without manual inspection," he said.

"Milivoj is now working with some research assistants to develop something that could be used in reality."

Once completed, he said, the researchers would like to offer the technology to Google - if the company had not already developed its own capability.

But as far as Kiwis are concerned, the potential for such software here was much more limited than in Europe.

"As a New Zealander, you can request that an article about you is removed from the index in the EU, but for Google New Zealand and for Google.com, it's still going to be there," tech commentator Peter Griffin said.

"There's no way at the moment to request that Google take something off the New Zealand index - you have to go to the internet provider, or the blog host, or the newspaper publisher and have it removed there.

"I think what we'll get - and this is what these guys are making easier - are better ways to interact with the tech giants to get stuff taken down, and part of that will be the new cyber-bullying legislation."

Part of the new Harmful Digital Communications Act allowed people to easily and quickly request the removal of harmful content.

But Mr Griffin said this would apply more to bullying, threats and attacks rather than just information that might affect someone's reputation.

Three ways to minimise your online presence

•Consider how much personal information you give: If a website asks for information about you, you have a choice about what information you provide.
•Read website privacy notices: If a website has a privacy notice this may give the purpose for collecting personal information.
•Adjust your browser settings to control the collection of information: Behind the scenes, websites can collect information about your browsing habits through the use of cookies.

Source: Office of the New Zealand Privacy Commissioner